Early Palmists

“Madame X”. Sun, 22 Oct 1924,

I should begin by commenting briefly on what it is that palmists do. They are palm readers. Meaning that they claim to be able to tell a person’s fortune from lines on palms. I won’t get into the details of the practice; instead, I will point readers to a link on the subject and leave it to you if you wish to chase the palmistry rabbit down its hole(s).

The earliest mention I could find of Vancouver palmists in the local press was in an August 1896 edition of the Weekly News-Advertiser. The article in question spoke of a St. James (Anglican) Church social in which “the phrenologist and the palmist were kept fully occupied, disclosing to all who sought their services much that was previously unknown to them (19 Aug 1896 Weekly News-Advertiser). This apparently lighthearted attitude to palmistry seems to have been pretty typical of Vancouver residents. It wasn’t illegal to practice palmistry. The City Council took a pretty pragmatic attitude to palmists. As long as they paid their business license ($10/year in the early period), they could practice.

Who Were They?

We don’t know much about the individuals who worked at this occupation, but we can make some remarks about the Vancouver palmists as a group, mainly from their advertisements in the press over the years.

The overwhelming majority of Vancouver palmists were women. Typically, they referred to themselves in their ads as “Madam(e)” or (infrequently) “Mrs”. Perhaps most were married; perhaps not. But the important point is that they seemed to want to be so perceived. I expect that this gave them a desired gravitas which they might not have had if they were identified as “Miss” or “Mademoiselle”.

Bu P634 – Building at SE Corner of Granville and Dunsmuir Street. Just prior to demolition. Shows Madam Rawney’s business digs on second floor, complete with the hand symbol which indicated the practice of palmistry within. 1927. W. J. Moore photo.
Province 13 Jan 1927. An ad for Madam Rawney when she was still working on West Hastings (before assuming the space shown above at Granville and Dunsmuir). I think “menthist” is a typo; probably should have been “mentalist”.

There were a couple of qualifiers that were added to the words “Palmist” and “Palmistry”. One was Egyptian Palmist. I haven’t been able to find out whether this had any meaning beyond sounding romantic. It doesn’t seem to have had much to do with the practitioner’s ethnicity. Nor, apparently, to the type of palmistry practiced. We probably will never know whether “Princess Pyterlyngero” was of Egyptian decent — or even black, for that matter (although one of her ads claims that she was born in Alexandria, Egypt). We can probably safely rule out a royal bloodline, however (Province 11 Jan 1906)!

Another common qualifier was Scientific Palmistry. “Madame Bayla” was one who so sold her services. Those, like Bayla, who put an emphasis on the science of palmistry were probably at pains to de-emphasize the “art” or the “seat of the pants” aspects of the practice. “Palmistry,” she remarked in an ad, “is a true science . . . . and she has read the hands of the most noted people in Europe and this country and . . . her patrons rank up to royalty.” (Manitoba Morning Free Press, 13 July 1904). She claimed to come from France, and that seems to be true; her actual name was Louise Robert (b. ca1877). I established that she was well-travelled in Canada. From Quebec to B.C., she covered all the principal cities thoroughly. Even some of the then-towns were graced with Bayla’s presence — including Lethbridge and tiny Frank, Alberta!

There were a couple of other more clunky qualifiers in addition to “Egyptian” and “scientific”. Seemingly, wishing to cover most of the bases, Madame Vordya sold herself as “the Royal English Egyptian Palmist” (World 25 Jan 1913). Queen Maze, however, described her work as being “the Royal English Gypsy palmist” (Sun 4 Feb 1913).

Everybody’s Wonderful! (Except When They’re Not)

One peculiar commonality among the many ads that I reviewed (from the 1890s to 1970) was the regular use of the word “wonderful”. Everyone who practiced palmistry, it seems, was “wonderful”! Permit a few examples:

“informs the public of her wonderful powers in reading the history of one’s life by examining the palms” un-named Egyptian Palmist. (World 31 March 1908)

“most wonderful delineator and gifted reader” La Fayette the Great (Province 12 June 1909)

“the wonderful palmists” un-named palmists in New Westminster (Province 15 Nov 1909)

“the wonderful Scotch palmist” John Muir (Province 24 Mar 1910)

“the wonderful card reader and palmist” Madame Damsky (World 2 July 1910)

“her wonderful gift of second sight enables her to lift the veil of mystery and reveal to you important matters of your future life.” Ceola (World 20 June 1912)

But there was at least one early palmist who did not feel so “wonderful” about herself. Lilian Field was a palmist who practiced in Victoria. However, this poor woman was judged to be insane and was moved to the hospital for the insane in New Westminster in November 1896. According to the Province, she was treated (as was typical at the time) as a criminal and only one day after being admitted in New Westminster, she was dead. What did the Province mean about her being treated as if she were a criminal? Apparently, she was bound hand and foot in shackles and was imprisoned in Victoria just as a criminal would be. Little use was made at the time of “camisoles” — which I take to be a reference to straitjackets. The Province editor summed it up well: “The principle of treating the insane as criminals is wrong and should no longer be allowed in practice” (Province 21 Nov 1896).

As the World Turned

By the early ’30s, there were changes evident in the occupation. Madame Sonia was partnering with David Spencer’s department stores. She would tell fortunes during lunch and tea hours in Spencer’s dining room. Madame X was broadcasting over CKCD and CHLS radio stations. In short, it became less common, as the years went by for palmists to function as solo acts. More and more, they relied on cafes and radio broadcasts to help them ply their trade. By the 1940s, to my surprise, the number of palmists advertising in the press fell dramatically. (I say that this surprised me, as I had expected these years to be a period of growth for palmists, given the uncertainties of war). There were just two palmists who were advertising regularly in the papers in that decade and by the ’60s that number fell to zero. I am sure that palmists continued to work in Vancouver in the ‘60s, but they made little use of the press in advertising the fact.

A related change I noted was that palmists tended less often to be based in the commercial district as the century wore on. Less frequently were they on the Granville or West Hastings “great white ways”; more often, they were in lower-rent East Hastings.

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2 Responses to Early Palmists

  1. Cathie McGuire says:

    That was a bit of fun for Friday night. Thanks M. I wonder if the Scotch palmist drank lots of whiskey?? Cathie

    On Fri, Nov 18, 2022 at 4:12 PM Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical

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